There's a lot of talk these days about the 40-acre footprint in the center of Providence left by the old Route 195. Will it be turned into parks or parking lots? Classrooms or cafes? But for the next month, at least, with the exhibition "I-195: A Photographic Excavation" up in the second-floor gallery at City Hall (through August 31), the discussion will linger on what was.
TIME FOR A CHANGE Photograph by Bill Benson.
While the photos feature plenty of rubble and graffiti, this isn't your average "ruin porn" peep show. One picture traces decades back to when photographer Paul Clancy would test lenses by snapping shots of the highway streaming past the windows of his studio on Chestnut Street. His photo, dashed off without much of a thought, is now an artifact, he says. Polaroid, the company that manufactured the film, is gone. So is the freeway.
The exhibition was organized by Paul Shelasky, a commercial photographer who takes photos of cleaning supplies and makeup products for a pharmacy chain during the week. On weekends when the highway was being pulled apart, he and his friend Warren Eve (also featured in the show) would walk the ruins for hours, sometimes in sweltering heat and biting cold. "I just found the whole process interesting to witness," he says. In Shelasky's pictures, steel tubes undulate like sea anemones and highways stretch into the distance, then crumble away, leaving only bare beams. "You would go one week and photograph something and you'd go the next weekend, it would be gone," he says.
Photograph by Paul Shelasky.
But the exhibition is about more than just a lost highway; it's also a showcase for an underground, unofficial photography club whose members were often swapping images on the photo-sharing site Flickr before they ever met in person. David Gong, a software engineer with the Department of Defense in Newport, ventured out on full-moon nights to take glowing, long-exposure shots of the new I-Way bridge. Erik Gould, the official photographer for the RISD museum, saw the piles of concrete and rusty metal as a welcome antidote to the pristine images he takes during the day. And then there is Bill Benson, a painter and photographer who simply found the rush of exploring this temporary viewing platform addictive. "Think of all the people that have driven across that bridge, up and down those off ramps, and all the accidents and the fights and the road rage," he says. "For the majority of the time I was up there, it was just me, my camera, my bike, and a bunch of seagulls."
Most of the guys are agnostic about the future use of the highway space. Gong may speak for the group when he says, "If they build something, I'll probably be over there taking snapshots of it." Benson, for his part, seems more interested in the irony of his work being exhibited at City Hall, given how many times he was asked to leave I-195 by the police. "It's really a show about a bunch of trespassers," he says.